Many leaders find setting deadlines for their teams uncomfortable.
Leadership these days is much different than it used to be. The days of “command and control” leadership are fading and instead, we have team members that like to be managed using more collaborative and inclusive methods.
The need to be inclusive and collaborative can make setting deadlines harder. After all, as Thoughtful Leaders we like to ask for input from our teams. When you say that you need the work done by a certain date and time, it feels like you’re just telling people what to do.
However, at the end of the day, someone needs to make the call about when that deliverable is due. And that someone is you!
Learn More: Directive Leadership: 4 Situations When You Should Be Using It.
The Problem With Vague or Non-Existent Deadlines
Many of us have done it before.
One of your team members does the right thing and asks “When do you need this finished?”
Your response goes something like “Whenever you can fit it in”. I have said these words myself in the past, and they don’t work very well.
Let’s take a look at why.
Firstly, the work that needs to be done may take far longer than it needs to, because there is no time pressure. Your team will use their discretion to decide when to complete it.
Secondly, your team has no sense of the priority of the work. They are left to decide whether they should complete this quickly or finish their other work first.
Third, in most cases, you really do have a desired timeframe for the work. You just haven’t said it because you hope your team member will just meet your unspoken deadline.
You might get lucky and find your team member gets the work done when you wanted it. Or, you might find yourself feeling impatient and asking for updates, because they have decided to prioritise some of their other tasks.
And last of all, without setting a clear deadline, you have no way to hold people accountable. You didn’t say when the task was due, so how can you tell anyone they didn’t get it done in time?
Learn More: 3 Simple Reasons Your Team is Missing Deadlines and How to Fix It.
The Benefits of Setting Deadlines In Your Team
There are several benefits of setting deadlines properly. In fact, if you aren’t setting clear deadlines for the work in your team, you’re doing everybody a disservice!
Benefit #1: Using the Power of Eustress
There are several different types of stress.
First, there is bad stress or Distress, which reduces performance and makes people feel very anxious and uncomfortable.
Then, there is what is called “Eustress”, also known as “good stress”. Eustress is the types of stress we experience when we are put under just the right amount of pressure. We feel like success is possible, but we will need to work hard to make it happen.
As you can see in the diagram below, Eustress occurs when we feel just enough pressure, but not too much, and not for too long.
Too little pressure gives rise to apathy and boredom, with too much pressure leading to fatigue and anxiety.
Think back to a time when you’ve had some pressing tasks to do, but you’ve felt super-motivated to achieve them.
This is most likely a situation when you’ve been experiencing Eustress, and this is what you want to induce in your team! They’ll feel motivated to perform and you will often see greater commitment to the work when someone is in this zone.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast Episode 30: Using Work Pressure to Improve Team Performance.
Benefit #2: A Sense of Purpose
Deadlines have an amazing ability to galvanise a team and give them a strong sense of purpose.
Instead of waiting for the day to end so they can go home, your team members are suddenly focusing on their new objective which is to hit that deadline.
All of a sudden, work becomes a lot more interesting. Someone is depending on your team to deliver and the work they are doing actually matters!
Ever had a day that has flown by because you’re so intently focused on your work? That often happens to me when I feel like I’m working on something worthwhile.
A sense of purpose is one of the strongest motivating factors that I have seen when leading teams. Note that just setting any deadline will not necessarily achieve this. I’ll cover more about how to set good deadlines later in this post!
Benefit #3: Clear Priorities & The Gift of Focus
Have you ever had a team member that liked to focus on anything except the actual work that you wanted them to do?
Setting a firm deadline can improve this situation. Instead of working on whatever they want, a pressing deadline forces the team into action to achieve a specific target.
When your team starts to race for the finish line, they tend to forget about all the other not so important stuff they were working on, because they might be in trouble if they don’t finish this task!
A deadline sends a clear signal to your team: This work matters and is a priority. Having a clear priority is critical for cutting out busy work and non-essential tasks that fill up our days in many workplaces.
Learn More: How to Set Clear Priorities For Your Team.
How to Set Good Deadlines
We’ve looked at some of the benefits of setting deadlines for your team.
Now, let’s take a look at how to set good deadlines, that achieve all the benefits we’ve highlighted!
1. Make the Deadlines Matter
Few things are as demoralising for a team as a fake deadline. Your team works hard and pushes to achieve the target, and when they hit it… nothing really happens.
The report they were working on sits in the desk drawer for another two weeks… or the presentation they created is postponed to the next committee meeting, a month away.
On the worst occasions, the work completed is never used, because it was never that important in the first place!
When you’re setting a deadline, do your best to make sure that there are ramifications for not achieving it, and that the work produced has outcomes and is actually used by somebody!
2. Set Deadlines That Are Realistic
“Stretch targets” can be beneficial and motivational, but you need to be careful that you aren’t stretching people too far. Working long hours and weekends is OK for a short period, but making this the norm is likely to burn your team out.
Realistic deadlines are critical in getting people to actually feel engaged in achieving them.
There are three aspects to consider when setting realistic deadlines:
- The timeline needs to feel achievable (creating a plan helps with this)
- You need to have the right resources and skills in place to do the work; and
- You need to be available to support your team to remove any roadblocks.
When you set a ridiculous target for your team, they may think you’re delusional. Or perhaps they’ll simply think you are weak, for not being able to negotiate a more reasonable timeframe with your boss.
Either way, your credibility is sure to take a hit if you push for an unrealistic target.
3. Set Deadlines With a Clear “Why”
Deadlines with no logic or reason behind them are hollow and can feel meaningless to a team.
“We need this done by Friday because I said so” isn’t very motivational and is a good way to get your team off side.
On the other hand, it is much easier to build momentum around a deadline that has clear reasons and consequences behind it. If Mrs Tanaka from global HQ is visiting next week, you’d better get that big presentation done in time!
Sometimes leaders will create fake deadlines to try to instil motivation in their teams. This is OK if nobody notices and it can work.
The problem arises when your team works it out, and they may not feel as compelled to strive quite as hard the next time!
4. Break Down Long-Term Deadlines Into Smaller Milestones
Another consideration when setting deadlines is to make sure that they aren’t too far away.
“OK, we need to deliver this project in 2 years. Aaaaaaaand…… GO!”
It’s really hard to get excited about a target that far in the future, because team members can’t really see how the work they complete today will help to achieve that goal. It’s simply too far away.
That’s not to say that you can’t have long-term targets. Of course you can, and should.
If you’re dealing with a long term target, you need to make sure you break it up into shorter-term milestones. That way, you keep the momentum up on the journey.
Short-term milestones help you celebrate success and people can see that they are making progress. On the other hand, it’s very hard to see progress against a two year target.
Learn More: The Power of Setting a Direction For Your Team.
Deadlines are critical for helping to engage your team. It might feel uncomfortable to set them, but it’s your job as a leader to keep things moving in the right direction!
What do you do to set good deadlines? Leave a comment below and tell your story!
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